Working Through It

By Chris McLaughlin

“Contact tracer.” You heard it all the time then.

Hey, I could do that. Once upon a time I’d done public health survey work: it’s like that.

“Hey, I could do that,” I post, idly, and friend Barbara Coyle says in her bullseye way, “well, do it then.” And so I did and do it still.

People trust me with their precious data. Sometimes they are glad for the small offerings of information and encouragement I give in return. Sometimes not.

The stories behind the data are not mine. They belong to the ones we call clients. But they let us witness the world together if we find a way to tell them safely. For decades medical schools and others have used a simple vehicle, the 55 word story, to convey not just what happens in the field but the feelings an encounter brings. Here are some of mine, details altered  to protect privacy without changing the felt truth.

First Call

“Who calling him?” the woman asks, not waiting for an answer. “Oh: it’s the COVID, right?”


“He not here. We don’t want him giving us the sickness. He going somewhere else, I don’t know where. South, maybe.”

He can’t do that, the investigator explains.

“He scared,” the woman says, gentler now. So is she.

The Ones You Know

Three round women dressed in gray,

They served their Lord, then they passed away.

Last night I dreamt a death, not mine: one of them. The death was not gentle and in peace. On a respirator, it was harsh and lonely.

They kept her in a coma, this nun I knew and loved: there’s that.

Helping/Not Helping

“Couldn’t eat, couldn’t hardly drink,” he says. Ambulance to the ER, IVs: things are a little better now.

“Still awful weak. I can’t eat much. Smoothies, yogurt and fruit. I can get those down. But work needs that test.”

Work is where he got it.

“Can you help? I’m scared to go back there, though.”


“Why do Black folks have this more?” the Black man asks.

We don’t really know. Less health care or worse health to begin, being poorer? Living close? How we’ve set things up, this country. Live in Rwanda though, it’s better.

“I shouldn’t have asked,” he apologizes. “Oh, but you should,” I say.

We all should.

Different Ways You Might Not Breathe

“I didn’t have no symptoms, just a panic attack.”

            Worried about having COVID?

“No. Other things. It’s all too much. And no I won’t tell you names. I take care of my children, and her, the other one, she takes care of herself.”

            Brother’s date of death, I find, one day before she couldn’t breathe.

Bad Rack Nurse

“Two consecutive shifts when I got the call it was me this time.

Baby split with company at one place, double wood at the other.”

I don’t understand.

“You know, bowling: 7 down and 3 left, then 8 down and 2 left. Only these are people, not pins. And they aren’t just down: they’re dead.”

Those Men, Tho

“You mean I got to stay at home with him another week? I thought we were done with that. You need to call him and tell him. He’s not here but he’ll pick up.”

I picture him just outside the door, smoking.

I imagine her, too, saying, “He’s not bad. We just need some space.”

So Long

What do you mean? That’s three weeks almost.

I can’t not work. Who do you think pays the bills here? They already got the electric off.

Third shift, alone, I’m keeping those big dark schools clean. No one’s back: don’t know when they will be. It’s only me there, only me here, paying the bills.

Part 1: Dad’s Not Here

“He has no symptoms,” the son says. “But I haven’t seen him in two weeks.”

In the hospital for a broken hip, with dementia, test was forgotten, done hastily before discharge: positive. Two weeks more there now.

“If you had the flu shot you get a false positive,” Son says hopefully.

First I’ve heard it.

Part 2: Where Dad Might Be

Don’t make me walk. It hurts. Where’s your face?

They have no faces here. Strange gowns. Aliens. Nice though.

Where’s my bed? My tools? My table where I sit with Betty?

“Can you smell?” they ask. Betty smells like vanilla.

Betty’s gone, the boy says. He’s always there, at the table.Where’s Betty? The boy?